Sister Myra Green
Mary A. Green, Shaker deaconess, seamstress, laundress, fine needleworker, nurse, poultry keeper, was born March 9, 1835, in Champlain, New York, the daughter of Francis G. and Emily Green. According to informal Shaker records, she was of Native American lineage.
Myra was brought to the Enfield, New Hampshire Shakers’ North Family in 1839 when she was four years old. She lived there until 1855 when she moved into the Church Family. She signed the Shaker Covenant in December 1857 at the age of 22.
It is not clear what Myra’s formal educational opportunities were as a child but during her formative years she developed a strong Shaker faith, acquired refined handwork skills, and established a much-admired commitment to hard work. These qualities became emblems of her century-long Shaker life.
About 1866, she wrote a hymn entitled “Make Ready My People,” later compiled in a Shaker manuscript hymnal by Eldress Rosetta Cummings.
Myra was a person willing to meet the challenges of many different work assignments. As a seamstress, Myra fashioned clothing for community members, and as a laundress, she helped maintain them for long service. An example of her craftsmanship. a black and white wool tweed shawl that she made during the Civil War years, was displayed in the 1962 Shaker exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
The Shakers were well known for keeping pace with agricultural and domestic technological advances, but Myra also maintained important skills that would otherwise have been lost to the family. In 1882, Eldress Caroline Whitcher wrote to Elder Henry Blinn of Canterbury, “I am not ready to say that your hat is done. It is being made and will be ready for another season. Sister Myra Green is making it and is the only sister in the family who knows how to braid a hat. She has her branch of business and only has a little time to work on it. She had bad luck in starting as she got it too large and had to begin another. There are no rules to make a palm hat. Anyone has to be governed by their judgment in the size of a hat.”
As the sale of Sisters’ fancy work became increasingly important to the family economy Sister Myra was open to acquiring new skills in order to produce new products. In 1904 she and Eldress Rosetta Cummings traveled to Hancock, Massachusetts, to learn “about the manufacturing of fur yarn” that could be used in knitted gloves and mittens.
Needlework was only one of Myra’s talents. During sugaring season a Canterbury sister, Amy Sargent, wrote, “At present I am employed at the sugaring, and Sister Myra, who makes such delicious sugar cakes will know just where to think of me.”
For several years Myra Green served as a nurse. She had a compassionate nature, and her kindnesses were appreciated by her Enfield sisters, and by others she served. Canterbury sister Harriet Johns wrote to her, “I never can forget your many acts of kindness extended to me at the cost of your own strength when I was with you.”
After she left the infirmary to become a family deaconess the three sisters who still served there, Sisters Julia Russell, Mary Darling, and Elizabeth Estabrook, sent a birthday letter to Myra. They wrote in part:
We are often reminded as we see you passing from place to place, in all kinds of weather carefully and faithfully doing your duties with a willing consecrated spirit – worthy our imitation, that we have an unspeakable blessing in one such noble sister, who never fails us whatever comes……. It is often said and with truth too that there is nothing we are called to put our hands to do, but what might be termed an honorable occupation; but notwithstanding all this, we feel that much of the cold rough work you so patiently perform must be anything but agreeable, and we think that our duties though often times not so pleasant far preferable to much that falls to your lot. So our good Sister Myra when your eyes fall upon these lines, may they prove a reminder that your sisters in the Infirmary know how to appreciate all the good and kind acts of your life, and hope that this expression of the same may add a little to the comfort and satisfaction you so justly merit.
In 1917 the Enfield, New Hampshire Shakers began the slow, painful process of closing their community and uniting with their sister society in East Canterbury. Mary Ann Joslin and Ann Cummings were the first sisters to make the move from Enfield. The next year Myra and three others followed. Canterbury trustee Josephine Wilson wrote in her diary, “Nov. 7, 1918, Irving [Greenwood] returns from Enfield with Sisters Myra Green, Elizabeth Estabrooks, Mary Darling and Flora Appleton who are coming down to live at Canterbury. Rooms #4, #6 and #8 are given up for their occupancy during the winter (at Infirmary.)”
Most of the Enfield sisters who came to Canterbury between 1917 and 1923 lived for only a few years in their new home. Myra Green and the Appleton sisters were the exceptions. Myra was 83 years old when she arrived and she lived another twenty-three years at Canterbury. Though she lost most of her Enfield family to death she developed a particularly close friendship with Canterbury sister Marguerite Frost. The two shared a deep and abiding Shaker faith, and they both cherished Shaker spirituals as expressions of that faith. In a 1922 Christmas letter, Sister Marguerite wrote,
This Christmas seems particularly blessed to me because of my privilege during the last month of becoming acquainted better with you. Words are poor mediums at times to express the thoughts of our heart and so now I find it hard to express to you the many heartfelt feelings I have in regard to your little ministrations in song. Those sacred words have helped me, far more than you realize. I shall always remember the little evening vespers where together we have sung the hymns of Zion, and I hope as you meet from evening to evening you will often remember me. We all thank our Heavenly Father that He has given us such beautiful older sisters and it is our greatest desire so to live that we can merit your approval and blessing in our daily lives. Your loving consecration shall be an example, an incentive to us to “Go and do likewise.”
According to Lebanon, New Hampshire, historian Robert Leavitt (who visited Myra with his grandparents in 1940), certain privileges were extended to her that were not broadly shared within the community. They were told, “We break a custom with Myra. We’re not supposed to read the world’s newspapers. But we let Sister Myra read them and she has five different papers she reads so we get all the world’s news from Sister Myra.”
Myra’s continued good health and remarkable longevity were points of public interest and community pride. But what made each day important to Myra was that it offered another opportunity to contribute to the well-being of her Shaker family. In an interview recounted in the Andrews’ book, Fruits of the Shaker Tree of Life, Marguerite Frost, who had been Myra’s companion and nurse, recalled, “this ‘old Believer,’ though she was going blind, insisted on completing daily a prescribed amount of sewing of pot holders and other small items. ‘It is my stint,’ she insisted, ‘it must be done.’ ‘Does she ever get out of bed?’ Marguerite was often asked. To which she replied, ‘My problem is to get her in bed’ ” (p. 162).
A document describing the “holders or hot plate mats made by the elderly lady, Sister Myra Green” notes, “The perfection of her work with the finely set stitches evinces admiration and makes the prosaic holder a masterpiece of art.”
Myra Green died October 3, 1942, at age 107 in the Shaker community at Canterbury, New Hampshire. She is buried in the Shaker Cemetery in Canterbury.
Original author: Mary Ann Haagen